I Am Woman (2019) is the kind of movie that reminds us how far we’ve come as society. The titular song written by Australian-born pop singer Helen Reddy is the acknowledged “anthem” of second wave feminism. It reached number one on the pop charts in 1972. But the song also defines Reddy’s passion for gender equality, as this movie written by Emma Jensen and directed by Unjoo Moon ably and effectively conveys.
A movie about an anthem and a pop icon
The song, like the movie, keeps its focus on the positive message of female empowerment, recognition, and acknowledgment. Reddy said that the song was born out of her own search for an empowering alternative to the male-oriented and often misogynistic lyrics of 1960s pop culture. Indeed, the iconic song was buried on an album as a concession to Reddy and her then manager husband, Jeff Wald. They objected to the song’s “angry tone” — “I am woman, hear me roar.” It was really just Reddy’s assertion of personal worth and dignity. Women who heard Reddy sing the song live literally propelled it up the charts.
The movie captures this success and more. Tilda Cobham-Hervey gives a powerful, emotional, and varied performance as Reddy as the singer suffers rejection, self doubt, unparalleled success, and then tragic heartbreak. Reddy landed in New York with her young daughter in tow after winning an audition from Australia. Supposedly the audition came with a record deal. The record company, however, backed out saying that American audiences were not interested in a female singer. Reddy is relegated to the basement stage of New York City’s sparsely populated and dreary bars.
A friendship with music journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Lady Bird, Bird Box), who would become an iconic figure in rock music, leads to a chance meeting with music promoter Jeff Wald. Reddy and Wald would marry, but their relationship would be volatile as Wald’s cocaine addiction became increasingly severe. The movie shows Wald’s addiction heightening his insecurity as he becomes verbally abusive and controlling.
A fitting tribute
I Am Woman is a fitting, entertaining tribute to an feminist icon and the paradoxes of success. Buoyed by strong acting, particularly from Cobham-Hervey and Macdonald, audiences will stay engaged. Chelsea Cullen’s vocal performances of Reddy’s more popular songs at critical plot points are top notch renditions.
Younger audiences, however, might find the theme of female empowerment falling flat. If anything, that may be a tribute to the enduring legacy of Helen Reddy’s music and its ability to power a generation of women to a new level of respect and dignity.
Unfortunately, Helen Reddy passed away in September 2020 at the age of 78.